Saving water: not about the action, but about the statement

Despite the worst recorded drought in California history to date, Santa Monica College Students continue to enjoy the aesthetic pleasures of extravagant water fountains. At either ends of the main quad stand bubbling, gushing mountains of water that spout from two large fountains, along with a calming pool by the art building. They have afforded students meeting places, hangout spots, pleasant lunch areas, and sources of beauty on campus for many years. But in this time of critically low water levels, it is perhaps time to reassess whether we should turn the fountains off so as to increase awareness and do our part to reduce water usage.

Although the Santa Monica Council assembly meeting on August 12 declared that the city has moved to Stage 2 of its Water Shortage Response Plan (WSRP), the SMC fountains are still left churning away all day, every day.

The WSRP outlines water use guidelines and restrictions for times of extreme drought, such as the times we find ourselves in today. Stage 2 means that the city's total water supply is down 10-20 percent, and the city is implementing policies with the goal to reduce water consumption by 20 percent.

Clearly, the need for water conservation is essential. It seems odd, then, to see a combined amount of 13,000 gallons of water being used for purely ornamental purposes.

Many people, including Isabella Schiros, Vice President of SMC's Eco-Action club, want the school to follow the lead of Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. The Promenade turned their iconic dinosaur fountains off back in August, which was the first time they had been shut off since 1989, according to an article from Curbed LA.

Similar to SMC's fountains, the dinosaurs use recycled water, so waste is not really an issue. The dryness was used to make a statement, raise awareness, and encourage others to conserve water. In a way, the city of Santa Monica wanted to create a reverse ice bucket challenge trend.

Schiros wants Santa Monica College to rise to that challenge and turn off their fountains. "We thought it would be a big show of support from SMC and a huge visual statement," she says.

Tom Fleming, Account Executive of the Business Greening Program at the non-profit Sustainable Works, agrees. Located just across Pearl St. from SMC's main campus, Sustainable Works often collaborates with SMC students to raise environmental awareness. Fleming says, "I think shutting off the fountains, for me personally, is a strong educational and awareness-raising action the school could take, right in line with the actions of the city."

However, as with all grand gestures, there are certain limits and impracticalities.

Structural damages are at the top of this list, and understandably so. When a system is designed to have a continuous flow of water running through, shutting off that flow can lead to complications. The Third Street dinosaurs, for example, were turned back on a month after being turned off for fear of metal corrosion that would require expensive repairs.

For SMC, there are also obstacles preventing the SMC fountains from being turned off. According to Schiro, the SMC facilities manager explained turning off the fountains could have negative consequences on student life and well-being. Schiro was told that, "Turning off the fountains would cause mosquito breeding issues." Apparently they are less afraid of the drought than they are of the biblical plague of mosquitos that inevitably follows.

Another issue with temporarily shutting off the fountains is that it may not end up being temporary. Several new provisions of the WSRP could make refilling the fountains tricky, namely the one where a water customer's "use allowance is a percentage of the previous year's average water usage," according to Section 9 of the plan.

This means, basically, that for 2014, Santa Monica College is limited to 90 percent of the water usage it had access to in 2013. Re-filling around 13,000 gallons to these fountains for whatever the necessary reason may be, could put us slightly over budget, even if most of the water does get recycled.

In the end, it seems likely that the Santa Monica College fountains will continue to flow throughout the coming semesters. However, the message that Third Street Promenade attempted to convey by shutting down their iconic dinosaur fountains is one that needs to be taken very seriously.

Our state is in a water crisis that shows no signs of letting up soon, and every individual should be doing their part to cut back on water wasting. So whether by turning off fountains or pools at home, or simply by cutting down on singing time in the shower, everyone needs to take action. The birds will just have to find someplace else to bathe besides your front lawn.